Super Hexagon, a pure action game

Super Hexagon… wow.  Now that’s a game.  A visual computer program designed to challenge.  In this case, it is a raw test of reflexes, memorization, control, and comprehension.

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I call it a pure action game because the action does not come from shooting, exploding, or any of those typical visual elements that have come to be associated with action.  Sometimes “action” is taken to mean the explosions and such on the surface rather than what’s going on deep at the core of the game, with the player interaction, and how the pieces on-screen behave.  At Super Hexagon’s core is movement.  You control a tiny triangle spinning around the center of the screen, dodging the constant assault of walls closing in on you.

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From that ultra-basic description and by looking at screenshots, it may be easy to call Super Hexagon “simple”.  Of course, it is simple in many ways.  But I believe the game as a whole is more deserving of adjectives such as… refined.  Focused.  And as I already said, pure.  Everything it does it does well, to near-perfection, with no unnecessary fluff or distractions.  Small in scope, but polished as all heck.

Hmmm… it’s a bit of a difficult game to discuss in-depth… but I think I’ll just relay my experiences with it, from the first play up until today.  That way I should end up touching upon everything that makes it so great.

So, Super Hexagon makes a bold first impression.  After booting up the game, the title appears and a fairly monotone female voice reads it off to you.  Then after navigating through the slick, quiet menus, you start the game to flashing colors, rotating shapes, and loud, pumping music.  The game is famous for being super hard, and it definitely took me a little while to survive longer than five seconds….  Going into such an immediately active game was disorienting, but I was captivated from the start anyways.  It was all so sharp, crisp!  Literally, in the shapes that formed the graphics, but also the bright shifting colors and electronic, chiptune music.

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After the initial minute or two of familiarizing myself with the basics – I’m the triangle, pressing left and right rotate me around, and I need to aim for the gaps in the walls – I was hooked.  Even though I couldn’t make it past ten seconds yet, it was seriously fun.  The entire game pulses to the beat of the song, and even the actions you have to take sync up pretty well.  The sets of walls that come at you are random every time you play, but some sections do indeed feel purposefully crafted.  The slow beginning of the song is typically accompanied by sets of swift 180° turns, which results in some remarkable synergy.  It gave me the drive to get farther, and trying over and over never got monotonous because the level is always random and the music starts at a different point every time you retry.

Reaching five or ten seconds can be pretty tough as a beginner… and you have to reach sixty to “beat” the level.  A full minute, yikes!  And the serious female voice lets you know the whole time how far you are.  After ten seconds, she’ll say “Line”.  At twenty, “Triangle”.  Thirty, “Square”.  So you’re trying to get to Hexagon.  It’s a really cool feature, but it always freaked me out when I got to 45 seconds and I heard “Pentagon”.  At that point it became a challenge of not having a heart attack and trying to keep some level of control for the last fifteen seconds… it’s absolute craziness in the moment.  A minute in day-to-day life is a miniscule blip, but in Super Hexagon it feels like an eternity of constant attention to a desperate struggle for survival.

Eventually, the silky monotone voice announced “Hexagon”, and text on-screen congratulated me!  Triumph!  It unlocked a new level called Hyper Hexagon which seemed to be an insane sped-up version of what I just played.  I decided to tackle it later.  Instead I moved on to Hexagoner, another sixty-second challenge with a darker color scheme and different layouts of walls to dodge.  There are six levels in all, with a humorous naming scheme: Hexagon, Hexagoner, Hexagonest, and then Hyper versions of all three.  It’s a fairly gradual ramp-up in difficulty, each level providing a decent chunk of increased difficulty over the last.  I felt pretty good after beating a few levels… sometimes I was amazed at the crazy maneuvers I pulled off without thinking.

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Eventually, well, I unlocked Hyper Hexagonest which is mindblowingly fast, flashy, and complicated.  The music is crazy, and all the color is drained out – just hopeless shades of grey.  No… no no no way is this even possible I thought.  I had no idea how you could wrap your mind around the extremely fast, constantly-rotating screen, and navigate through it for a solid minute.  Such a severe ramp up in difficulty.  But after hours of practice over several days, I finished it and watched the final cutscene (heh, yep, there is one) for several minutes in awe, mouth agape.

I’ve kept playing it since then, and I have a better grasp on how to play well now.  My goal here certainly isn’t to brag – I just find it fascinating how Hexagon used to be quite the challenge, and now it is feasible for me to finish Hyper Hexagonest, and it is no longer intensely stressful to do so either.  There was a long journey between those two points….

One key to Super Hexagon success is to not be thrown off by the screen rotation.  It’s dizzying at first, but by now my eyes have been trained to follow everything around in circles, even when the direction changes.  It just came naturally.  Reflexes, memorization and quick thinking are important too – recognizing the patterns of walls on the outside of the screen, and positioning yourself appropriately as they come in closer.  The game is insanity, but anything can become familiar once you spend enough time with it.

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Finishing the entire game initially took me about 12 hours, and right now Steam tells me I’ve clocked about 23 total.  Why do I keep coming back?  What keeps me playing this little game??  I think it’s the intense awareness and constant attention it requires to play.  And now that I’m pretty comfortable with every aspect of the game, it’s really satisfying to play rather than stressful.  An incredibly satisfying action game is what it is.  (And you can go past sixty seconds to compete on online leaderboards, so there’s some extra challenge)  Also: the music!!!  Even after hearing it so many times, sometimes I can’t help but grin while playing because of its excellence.

Super Hexagon launched on Apple iTouch devices to rave reviews, so the touch screen controls must work pretty well.  I played it once it came to computers, and I really liked the keyboard controls.  And it recently came to the Android platform if that’s your kind of thing.  Wherever you’d like to get it, it costs $2.99 which is frankly a steal.  A masterpiece of simple design and perfect execution.  Highly recommended, if it wasn’t obvious enough! :D

Flash gaming at its best – Liferaft: Zero

What do you think of when I say “flash games”?  A monkey spanking simulation, tower defense against balloons, or perhaps bloody stick figure kung fu might come to mind.  Sure, those games may have their place (kids need something to do on the school computers, right?), but sometimes Adobe’s vector-based dev tools end up in exceptionally talented hands.  From the vast sea of poorly-animated, shallow gaming experiences available for free on the web, some rise far above the others.  In this blog post I pull one such title from the cream of the Flash crop and thrust it into the limelight: Liferaft: Zero.

It’s a grappling hook platformer that has you playing as young girls, all clones who are test subjects in a stark white science facility.  The scientists watch from high up windows, sip on their coffee, and talk to you through purple computer screens.  For some reason they want you to ring that bell over there and go through the door to the next room.  Don’t like the look of those spikes, but… doesn’t seem like there’s any other way out of here, so may as well get swinging!

So in standard platforming fashion you can run left & right, jump, but also wall jump and use your aforementioned grappling hook.  Rather than swinging from ceilings like in some other grappling-centric games, the hook is used on designated points sticking out from the wall, in open space – you can swing a full 360º around them.  By extending & retracting your rope and letting go at the right time, you can use your momentum to land where you need to be.  It’s the central mechanic and boy oh boy is it a good one.

It’s difficult starting out.  The spikes may be quite red before you reach the exit, especially if you want the delicious bonus candy.  But man, once you get the hang of it, once it clicks… that grappling hook is incredible.  It makes this game.  It adds so much depth that isn’t found in a typical platformer, and mastery of the swing physics really takes some skill.  Getting some serious momentum going, swinging around that point, and hurling yourself straight up into the air really feels great – it’s kept me coming back for dozens upon dozens of playthroughs.  Add in the overall tight controls & fancy wall jumping and you’ve got some pretty great locomotion going on.

The graphics and sound help to further tie the whole experience together.  Liferaft: Zero looks great – tiny, super detailed, colorful pixel art.  The player character is 9 pixels tall and everything’s zoomed out pretty far!  Even so the animations are done well and convey a lot, with her hair blowing in the wind and dust kicking up as she slides down walls.  Then there’s the sound… there’s actually no music, but plenty of crisp sound effects and ambiance.  The quick little footsteps, the click of the grappling hook, the echo of the wall jump.  It’s all another integral part of what makes controlling the character so satisfying.

Mikengreg are the two-man dev team behind this Flash masterpiece, and their slogan is “Handmade games crafted with love & high-fives.”  It really shows.  Now, I tend to totally gush about the games I love, so I’ll say a few quick things: It may not be for everyone, and it really does take a little while to get the swing physics down.  But if you like what you see and you stick with it, Liferaft: Zero is a gem.

One-hundred percent excellent: Thomas Was Alone

Wow, what a superb little piece of interactive entertainment.  Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle platformer that looks, sounds, and plays super slick.

First off, it’s visually minimalist.  You play as squares and rectangles!  The world is equally angular, but simple graphics doesn’t mean bad graphics – the game is gorgeous.  Great use of color, special effects, and cool animation.  Very clean, modern design… the backgrounds have all kinds of interesting little things moving.  The best example of all of these nice touches coming together is the jumping.  I think the jumps of Thomas and his friends rank up there in the greatest video game jumps of all time.  The rectangular characters actually squish & stretch a bit as they rise, and that spiffy animation is coupled with a simply spectacular blippy sound effect.  It’s one classy video game.

One incredible thing that sets this game apart is the story.  It’s played out through a voiced narration consisting of the characters thoughts or even actual dialogue between the shapes.  The voice actor’s great, and the writing is awesome, often humorous.  It’s a real treat to move through the levels and see what’s going to be said next.

What’s crazy is how these shapes are brought to life!  Exclusively through the narration you get a great feel for all their different personalities, and you actually care about them – I did anyways.  Man, there was one part where the plot was going in a certain direction, the music was just right, and maybe my mood had a bit to do with it, but I shed a tear.  It’s amazing how much emotion is packed into this game of quadrilaterals…. Incredibly impressive.

Oh, and the gameplay is great too.  You switch between all of these characters, using their unique powers to get everyone to their corresponding portals to exit the level.  Smaller guys who can’t jump as high may need to use the others as stairs, but then they squeeze through a small passage to press a button, opening up the larger doorway for the taller ones.  Or one can float on toxic water, and everyone else rides across on top.  It’s all about teamwork, and friendship!  It never gets too difficult, but always stays creative and fun to play.

Fun fact: It was built in Unity, an engine that is usually used to create 3D games.  I just keep seeing a bigger variety of very cool games made with that software… very tempting to try it out someday!

So, Thomas Was Alone is fresh, unique, and completely brilliant.  Highly recommended – it’s available for Mac & Windows over at the official site, along with a free demo.  Instant classic for me… would love it if the dev came out with a fancy boxed copy to put on my shelf!  Or some figurines, heh.

Love at first sight: Rhythm Heaven Fever

I first saw Rhythm Heaven Fever in action one Monday afternoon watching Backloggery Live.  I rarely go out to the store to buy a game new, unless it’s something I’m super stoked for and must have on day one (previous cases: Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts, Brütal Legend), or I’ve just discovered one that I can’t possibly live without.  After watching a few minutes of this game, I knew what had to be done.

Hooked right away, I played a good amount every day until I finished it, and for quite a while afterwards.  It was near-pure joy, except for the really challenging parts – which were still fun to overcome anyways.  Fever is the third installment of the Rhythm Heaven series, and like its predecessors, it’s a collection of rhythm-based minigames with simple controls.  Here, most of the games just require the A button, while a few use the B button too.  Never more than two buttons.  There may be a monkey throwing golf balls to you, and you press A to the beat of the song to swing and hit them.  Or you’re a really tall bird marching to the tune with a huge flock of your friends.  The minigames tend to be zany & hilarious, and they’re always a blast to play.

Rhythm is a good fit for games… it’s usually there in some form, if a little more subtle and not put to music.  People who master arcade games for example really get a connection with a game, and they have a deep understanding of how it works.  They feel the rhythm of weaving the ship between bullets or chomping down on the lines of pellets in the right order (I presume).  Rhythm Heaven thrusts that hidden component to the forefront and comes up with an experience of pure fun that I haven’t really had in other games.  The songs are catchy, characters pulse to the beat, and the animations & sound effects come together to create some incredibly satisfying button presses.  Hitting a golf ball smoothly or catching a pea moving at lightspeed with a fork feels great.  The developer must’ve emptied so many bottles of polish fine-tuning this game.  Keeping a grin off my face was impossible once I settled into the groove.

It has plenty for casual players to enjoy, and it also has extreme challenge for those who are up for it.  I’ve gotten good scores on each minigame, but now I’m trying to go for all perfects….  I think it’s crazy hard, but really it’s a matter of losing yourself and becoming one with the game.  Everything else around you must melt away, leaving you and Rhythm Heaven.  And you can’t think too much about it either – just tune in and stay on the beat…..  I’m actually at 25/50 perfects right now.  Half way there!  Some pretty insane ones left though.

In my mind there’s no question about it: Rhythm Heaven Fever is an instant Wii classic.  If you have any sense of rhythm, then it shouldn’t be hard to pull some good fun out of it.  I thought $30 was an amazing launch price, and it’s only going to get lower from there!  While there aren’t downloadable demos for Wii disc games, you can actually get a taste by watching some YouTube footage and tapping on your desk to pretend you’re playing.  That’s what I did before I bought it!

Modern masterpiece: Spelunky

Spelunky may well be the best freeware game I have ever played.  I’d have to think about that to be completely sure, but in all likeliness it is true.  First released in 2008 by Derek Yu, it’s an 8-bit style platformer that has you exploring randomly-generated caves, plunging deeper and deeper in search of treasure.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that it’s hard.  Really hard.  There are a lot of ways for the red-nosed adventurer to die.  And there are no extra lives either – when you die, you lose all of your items & money and have to start at the beginning with a newly-created set of levels.  This concept of permanent death is common in “roguelike” RPGs, but I’ve never seen it in a platformer before.

So, Spelunky is super difficult much like the 8-bit games its visuals and sounds take inspiration from.  However, in older games like Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man, there’s a great deal of memorization involved.  When playing those games, you’re learning the layout of the levels and where the enemies are.  You don’t get that here, because the levels are completely different every time you play!  To survive in Spelunky, you must learn bit-by-bit how to navigate the world, deal with enemies, and use items in the best way.  You get better at the game itself, rather than memorizing where things are.

The randomness and difficulty are part of what makes Spelunky so compelling.  While the layout of the caves is different every time, there’s a set amount of levels.  There is an end to this repeating adventure.  Every few deaths, I got a little closer… I always wanted to see what was beyond.  Finally, past the rocky tunnels, you might catch a glimpse of… a lush forest?  Growing here, underground?  How could it be…?  But then you slip into a pit of spikes.  It’s so easy to restart because of the prospect of getting farther, and because the always-different levels keep it very interesting.

And the actual act of playing is so fun!  The running and jumping feels good, and exploration is great.  Carefully placing bombs to blast through to treasure, dropping a rope and climbing down safely, finding chests full of priceless jewels, and even rescuing damsels in distress (however they got down here).  Turns out grand adventure is tons of fun, and completely awesome.

I also think Spelunky has really good atmosphere, believe it or not.  All of the music is great, but the track that begins every playthrough is especially so.  Somehow it’s super catchy & upbeat but at the same time… foreboding.  And when you launch the game, you are given three random lines of narration on a black screen that usually give a very epic beginning to your journey.  They let you know that the cute little clown-nosed spelunker actually has a very interesting backstory.  It’s an extra incentive for every time you start the game up, and they’re just plain cool:

Putting the faded photo in my pocket,
I squinted into the darkness,
and wondered how long I’d be below.

or

After I double-checked my map,
I spotted the cave’s entrance,
And thought of her one last time.

Just be warned: Spelunky is way addicting.  Or at least I found it to be.  It sucked quite a bit of productivity out of several of my days when I was really hooked on it, trying to unlock these special challenge rooms.  But it’s just a testament to how good it is!  Right now I’m playing the new remake that came out on the Xbox 360 a few months ago, but I still come back to this version because it’s so incredibly fun to speedrun. (my best time so far is 3:50!)

I truly feel that Spelunky is special enough to deserve a spot among gaming’s greatest… and if you’ve read this far, surely something above interested you.  Go on, give it a download and see how deep you can get in the legendary, every-changing caverns.

Windows Version
Unofficial Mac & Linux Ports